One of the crown jewels of conservation in Maine’s North Woods is the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, a nearly roadless 46,271-acre tract of mature forests and pristine lakes and ponds rich with wildlife situated at the far northern end of the 100-Mile Wilderness just shy of Baxter State Park and mile-high Katahdin.
Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area is an ecological reserve that protects the highest concentration of remote ponds in New England as well as undisturbed stands of 300-year old trees.
The forest habitat is home to a variety of cover types, from old growth hemlock to white pines, spruce and balsam fir to beech, maple and birch. Some 215 species of plant life are found here, as are pine marten, spruce grouse, moose, bobcat and bear. The waters hold lake and brook trout and even rare freshwater mussels. Best of all, visitors to Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area can enjoy a bounty of recreational opportunities ranging from hiking and backpacking to camping to canoeing and kayaking, fishing and hunting, all amid the solitude and primitive nature that are this land’s hallmark.
The Nature Conservancy acquired this property from Great Northern Paper in 2002 in a transaction that featured a new and innovative approach to financing large-scale conservation projects.
“The property that is now the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area had been of interest to conservation groups for some time, but it was not for sale,” said Bill Patterson, TNC’s Northern Maine Program Manager.
Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the paper companies that owned vast tracts of the Maine woods were vertically integrated, whereby the mills also owned the forestlands from which they harvested timber to supply their paper machines. But that historically stable ownership model unraveled as cash-strapped mills began to monetize their land assets by selling off large swaths of timberland, fostering a period of uncertainty in the paper industry that also created new and unforeseen opportunities for conservation.
Great Northern Paper Company was one of the major industry players that had a big need for cash, and in 2002 the firm sold the Debsconeag Lakes land to The Nature Conservancy as well as a conservation easement on the Katahdin Forest, an additional 195,000 acres of land around Baxter State Park. Known altogether as the Katahdin Forest Project, the easement sale guaranteed public access, traditional recreational uses and sustainable forestry while eliminating any future development.
“It was a compelling attraction because of its high conservation and recreation value,” Patterson said. “It captured the imagination and enthusiasm of individuals and organizations alike. People really got excited to contribute to its protection.”
In the very complicated Katahdin Forest Project deal, The Nature Conservancy bought $50 million of Great Northern Paper Company debt, retired $14 million of it in exchange for conserving the Debsconeag Lakes tracts and refinanced the balance at a significantly lower rate, thereby providing GNP with the low-cost, long-term financing it needed to continue operating its paper mill.
TNC then used the New Markets Tax Credit Program to incentivize an investor to purchase the remainder of their loan.
In 2006, TNC transferred the conservation easement for the Katahdin Forest to the State of Maine along with a $500,000 stewardship endowment.
If the financial complexities of the Katahdin Forest Project seem a bit baffling, well, you’re not alone. But it’s enough to know that the approach not only worked but established a new model for conservation projects in Maine and elsewhere in the United States. And the importance not only of how the project was accomplished but what it meant to the broader picture of conservation in Maine’s North Woods cannot be understated.
Adjacent to the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area and the Katahdin Forest, just across the West Branch of the Penobscot River, is 210,000-acre Baxter State Park. To the north and west are the 750,000-acre Pingree Working Forest Easement and the 329,000-acre West Branch Project, both of which exclude future development. In and around Moosehead Lake, the Moosehead Region Conservation Easement protects 363,000 acres from development while maintaining a working forest and traditional recreation access and use.
Abutting the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area to the south is the state-owned 43,000-acre Nahmakanta Public Reserved Land. Further south and west through the 100-Mile Wilderness are the 67,000 acres of conservation and recreation lands owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club, whose 2009 purchase of the Roach Ponds Tract plugged the remaining gap in a now continuous 63-mile long block of protected forestland ranging from just north of Monson to the northern end of Baxter State Park, much of it threaded by the Appalachian Trail and 15,000 acres of National Park Service corridor.
Add up the numbers and you can begin to see that the total acreage of Maine’s North Woods in conservation, whether through purchase or easement, is staggering and represents enormous economic and environmental potential for sustainable forest management, eco-tourism and outdoor recreation for generations to come.
20 miles of hiking trails, untold miles of paddling routes over lakes and ponds and several dozen primitive campsites allow for tripping into the wild and scenic interior of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area for anything from a day excursion to a journey of a week or more.
The Appalachian Trail meanders through the Wilderness for 15 miles, entering near Murphy Ponds and exiting on the Golden Road just west of Abol Bridge. En route, the AT hugs the entire south shore of Rainbow Lake, a lovely distance of five miles along the largest lake in the Wilderness. Beyond the lake, the trail climbs over Rainbow Ledges. Lush with blueberries in high summer, the ledges offer outstanding views of Katahdin, nine miles to the northeast as the crow flies. Two Maine Appalachian Trail Club lean-tos and a handful of tentsites help make this a fine multi-day backpacking trip.
Spur trails branching off the AT lead to additional tentsites at Lower Bean Pond and Little Hurd Pond, as well as to Bear Pond, Doughnut Pond, Rainbow Mountain and Big Beaver Pond.
Five miles of trails lead into the northern section of the Wilderness from the Golden Road at Horserace Brook. The Horserace Pond Trail reaches in to the pond of the same name, where three primitive lakefront tentsites are located. The Blue Trail diverges early on, leading past Clifford and Woodman ponds to the north shore of Rainbow Lake.
The most popular trail for day hiking is the Ice Cave Trail, which departs from the end of the Hurd Pond Road. The highlight of the mile-long hike is the Ice Cave, a cavernous hole beneath a jumble of boulders, a “cool” spot that often retains ice well into the summer months. A short distance beyond the cave is the north shore of First Debsconeag Lake.
“We’ve done a substantial amount of work fixing up the existing trails and making them more enjoyable to hike. The Ice Caves Trail is a brand new hiking opportunity for the area and one of the best short day hikes you’ll find,” noted Patterson.
Three carry-in boat launches in the Wilderness allow access for canoe and kayak paddlers and anglers. Day trippers can launch at Little Holbrook Pond, and with a short portage, can investigate the larger Holbrook Pond too. You can also put in on the north shore of Hurd Pond; there is a nice campsite to the northwest where the pond narrows (also accessible by vehicle).
From the launch site at Omaha Beach and the Debsconeag Deadwater on the West Branch of the Penobscot River, make the short paddle to First Debsconeag Lake and the start of the Debsconeag chain of four lakes. A handful of tentsites are situated on First Debsconeag, several more on Second and one additional on Third. Ambitious paddlers could easily spend a week or more exploring and camping around the four beautiful lakes, namesakes of this incredible wild region. Bring your rod and reel to supplement your larder with lake trout, brook trout and Arctic char, a prized relative of the salmon and trout.
“The Debsconeag property is seeing increased use by visitors to the Katahdin Region,” said Patterson. “We welcome the public to come and enjoy the place.”
Visitors should be mindful of Leave No Trace practices at Debsconeag and all other special places in the Maine woods (lnt.org).